A redesign of the Lee-Metford, which had been adopted by the British Army in 1888, the Lee-Enfield remained in widespread British service until well into the early 1960s and the 7.62 mm L42 sniper variant remained in service until the 1990s. As a standard-issue infantry rifle, it is still found in service in the armed forces of some Commonwealth nations.
The Lee-Enfield featured a ten-round box magazine which was loaded manually from the top, either one round at a time, or by means of five-round chargers. The Lee-Enfield superseded the earlier Martini-Henry, Martini-Enfield, and Lee-Metford rifles, and although officially replaced in the UK with the L1A1 SLR in 1957, it continues to see official service in a number of British Commonwealth nations to the present day—notably with the Indian Police—and is the longest-serving military bolt-action rifle still in official service.
Total production of all Lee-Enfields is estimated at over 17 million rifles, making it one of the most numerous military bolt-action rifles ever produced—second only to the Russian Mosin-Nagant M91/30, which was itself a contemporaneous design.
The Lee-Enfield relied on various woods for its stock but chiefly walnut, both North American black walnut and European 'English' walnut, renowned for their qualities. The decorative figure of these timbers, prized amongst game shooters, was not required for military rifles, but it is not uncommon to find military Lee-Enfield rifles with almost presentation-quality wood stocks.
The rifle was also equipped with a detachable sheet-steel, 10-round, double-column magazine, a very modern development in its day. Originally, the concept of a detachable magazine was opposed in some British Army circles, as some feared that the private soldier might be prone to lose the magazine during field campaigns. Early models of the Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield even used a short length of chain to secure the magazine to the rifle. Critics also predicted that a repeating rifle with such a large magazine capacity would discourage soldiers from taking careful aim, relying instead on sheer volume of fire to repel the enemy. Both concerns proved to be unfounded.
The fast-operating Lee bolt-action and large magazine capacity enabled a trained rifleman to fire between 20 to 30 aimed rounds a minute, making the Lee-Enfield the fastest military bolt-action rifle of the day. The current world record for aimed bolt-action fire was set in 1914 by a musketry instructor in the British Army — Sergeant Instructor Snoxall — who placed 38 rounds into a 12" target at in one minute. Some straight-pull bolt-action rifles were thought faster, but lacked the simplicity, reliability, and generous magazine capacity of the Lee-Enfield. Accounts dating from WWI tell of British troops repelling German attackers, who subsequently reported that they had encountered machine guns, when in fact, it was simply a group of trained riflemen armed with SMLE Mk III rifles.
The Lee-Enfield was adapted to fire the .303 British service cartridge, a rimmed, high-powered rifle round. Experiments with smokeless powder in the existing Lee-Metford cartridge seemed at first to be a simple upgrade, but the greater heat and pressure generated by the new smokeless powder quickly wore away the shallow, rounded, Metford rifling. Replacing this with a new square-shaped rifling system designed at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) Enfield solved the problem, and the Lee-Enfield was born. Despite calls for a new rimless cartridge design better suited to the double-column magazine and the new machine guns then in development, the government demanded that the new design use the existing rimmed cartridge design in order to use existing ammunition stocks. This decision had the unintended effect of ensuring that the .303 British cartridge survived well into World War II and Korea, by which time the need for a rimless cartridge had become a priority to enable the Commonwealth militaries to field self-loading rifles, which require rimless cartridges for more-reliable magazine feeding.
The Lee-Enfield rifle was introduced in November 1895 as the .303 calibre, Rifle, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, or more commonly simply Magazine Lee-Enfield, or MLE (sometimes spoken as "emily" instead of M, L, E). The next year a shorter version was introduced as the Lee-Enfield Cavalry Carbine Mk I, or LEC, with a 21.2 inch (538mm) barrel as opposed to the 30.2 inch (767mm) one in the "long" version. Both underwent a minor upgrade series in 1899, becoming the Mk I*. Many LECs (and LMCs in smaller numbers) were converted to special patterns, namely the New Zealand Carbine and the Royal Irish Constabulary Carbine, or NZ and RIC carbines, respectively. Some of the MLEs (and MLMs) were converted to load from chargers, and designated Charger Loading Lee-Enfields, or CLLEs.
|Charger Loading Lee-Enfield||1906–1926|
|Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I||1904–1926|
|Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk II||1906–1927|
|Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk III/III*||1907–Present|
|Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk V||1922–1924 (Trials Only 20,000)|
|Rifle No. 4 Mk I||1941–Present|
|Rifle No. 4 Mk I*||1942–Present|
|Rifle No 5 Mk I "Jungle Carbine"||1944–Present|
|Rifle No. 4 Mk 2||1949–Present|
|Rifle 7.62mm 2A||1964–Present|
|Rifle 7.62mm 2A1||1965-Present|
The iconic Lee-Enfield rifle, the SMLE Mk III, was introduced on January 26, 1907, and featured a simplified rear sight arrangement and a fixed, rather than a bolt-head-mounted sliding, charger guide. The design of the handguards and the magazine were also improved, and the chamber was adapted to fire the new Mk VII High Velocity spitzer .303 ammunition. Many early model rifles, of Magazine Lee Enfield (MLE), Magazine Lee Metford (MLM), and SMLE type, were upgraded to the Mk III standard. These are designated Mk IV Cond., with various asterisks denoting subtypes.
During World War I, the standard SMLE Mk III was found to be too complicated to manufacture. Demand was outstripping supply, and in late 1915, the Mk III* was introduced, which incorporated several changes, the most prominent of which were the deletion of the magazine cut-off, and the long range volley sights. The windage adjustment capability of the rear sight was also dispensed with, and the cocking piece was changed from a round knob to a serrated slab. Rifles with some or all of these features present are found, as the changes were implemented at different times in different factories and as stocks of preexisting parts were used. The magazine cut-off was reinstated after WWI ended, and not entirely dispensed with until 1942.
The inability of the principal manufacturers (RSAF Enfield, Birmingham Small Arms, and London Small Arms) to meet military production demands led to the development of the "peddled scheme", which contracted out the production of whole rifles and rifle components to several shell companies, leading to a minor political scandal.
The SMLE Mk III* (redesignated Rifle No.1 Mk III* in 1926) saw extensive service throughout World War II as well, especially in the North African, Italian, Pacific and Burmese theatres in the hands of British and Commonwealth forces. Australia and India retained and manufactured the SMLE Mk III* as their standard-issue rifle during the conflict, presumably due to familiarity with the design and ease of production, and the rifle remained in Australian military service through the Korean War, until it was replaced by the L1A1 SLR in the late 1950s. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory finally ceased production of the SMLE Mk III* in 1953.
The infant National Army of Ireland adopted the SMLE as their service rifle upon the foundation of the state in 1922. Captured examples had already seen widespread service with the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence. The weapon was used by both sides during the Civil War period, and examples were still being used by the IRA during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
It should be noted that the Pattern 1914 Enfield and M1917 Enfield rifles are sometimes (incorrectly) assumed to be part of the Lee-Enfield family on account of either their calibre (.303), service history, or designer (RSAF Enfield). P14 and M1917 rifles are Mauser 98 derivatives and not based on the Lee action, and are therefore not part of the Lee-Enfield family of rifles. As such, they are not covered within the scope of this article.
The SMLE design was fairly expensive to manufacture because of the many forging and machining operations required. In the 1920s several experiments were carried out to help with these problems, reducing the number of complex parts. The SMLE Mk V (later Rifle No. 1 Mk V), used a new receiver-mounted aperture sighting system, which moved the rear sight from its former position on the barrel. The increased gap resulted in an improved sighting radius, improving sighting accuracy, and the aperture improved speed of sighting (making it also known as a "battle sight"). The magazine cutoff was also reintroduced, and an additional band was added near the muzzle for additional strength during bayonet use. Unfortunately, this design was found to be even more complicated and expensive to manufacture than the Mk III, and so was not developed or issued beyond a trial production of this rifle numbered approximately 20,000 units, produced between 1922 and 1924 at RSAF Enfield. The No. 1 Mk VI also introduced a heavier "floating barrel" that was independent of the forearm, allowing the barrel to expand and contract without contacting the forearm and changing the zero of the rifle. The receiver-mounted rear sights and magazine cutoff were also present, and production numbered 1025 units, produced between 1930 and 1933.
By the late 1930s the need for new rifles grew, and the Rifle, No. 4 Mk I was first issued in 1939 but not officially adopted until 1941. The No. 4 action was similar to the Mk VI, but lighter, stronger, and most importantly, easier to mass produce. Unlike the SMLE, the No 4 Lee-Enfield barrel protruded from the end of the forestock. The No. 4 rifle was considerably heavier than the No. 1 Mk. III, largely due to its heavier barrel, and a new bayonet was designed to go with the rifle: a spike bayonet, which was essentially a steel rod with a sharp point, and was nicknamed "pigsticker" by soldiers. Towards the end of WWII, a bladed bayonet was developed and issued for the No 4 rifle, using the same mount as the spike bayonet.
During the course of World War II, the No. 4 rifle was further simplified for mass-production with the creation of the No. 4 Mk I* in 1942, which saw the bolt release catch removed in favour of a more simplified notch on the bolt track of the rifle's receiver. It was produced only in North America, with Long Branch Arsenal in Canada and Savage-Stevens Firearms in the USA producing the No. 4 Mk I* rifle from their respective factories. On the other hand, the No.4 Mk I rifle was primarily produced in the United Kingdom.
The No. 4 Mk 2 saw extensive use with the Irish Army in the post war period. It was replaced in regular service in the early 1960s by the FN FAL, when the need for a more modern rifle was realised during the Congo Crisis. Examples continued in use by the Army Reserve right up until 1990, and despite its shortcomings as a military weapon by that time, it was popular amongst those who used it.
The term "Jungle Carbine" was popularised in the 1950s by the Santa Fe Arms Corporation, a U.S. importer of surplus rifles, used in the hopes of increasing sales of a rifle that had little U.S. market penetration. It was never an official military designation, but British & Commonwealth troops serving in the Burmese and Pacific theatres during WWII were known to unofficially refer to the No. 5 Mk I as a "Jungle Carbine" to differentiate it from full length SMLE and No. 4 Lee-Enfield rifles.
Both the No. 4 and No. 5 rifles served in Korea (as did the SMLE Mk III*- mostly with Australian troops).
During WWII, standard No. 4 rifles, selected for their accuracy during factory tests, were modified by the addition of a wooden cheek-piece, and telescopic sight mounts designed to accept a No. 32 3.5x telescopic sight. This particular sight progressed through three marks with the Mk 1 introduced in 1942, the Mk 2 in 1943 and finally the Mk 3 in 1944 (later somewhat confusingly re-designated the L1A1). Holland and Holland, the famous British sporting gun manufacturers, converted the majority of No 4 Mk I (T) sniper rifles, with the rest converted by BSA and, in Canada, Long Branch arsenal. These rifles were extensively employed in various conflicts until the late 1960s, and when the British military switched over to the 7.62x51 NATO round in the 1950s, many of the No 4 Mk I (T) sniper rifles were converted to the new calibre and designated L42A1.
The L42A1 sniper rifle continued as the British Army's standard sniper weapon until the mid 1980s, being replaced by Accuracy International's L96.
Small numbers of Lee-Enfield rifles were built as, or converted to, experimental semi-automatic loading systems, the best-known of which was the Charlton Automatic Rifle, designed by a New Zealander, Philip Charlton in 1941 to act as a substitute for the Bren and Lewis gun light machine guns which were in chronically short supply at the time.
During WWII, the majority of New Zealand's land forces were deployed in North Africa. When Japan entered the war in 1941, New Zealand found itself lacking the light machine guns that would be required for local defence should Japan choose to invade, and so the New Zealand Government funded the development of self-loading conversions for the Lee-Enfield rifle. The end result was the Charlton Automatic Rifle (based on the obsolete MLE), which was issued to Home Guard units in NZ from 1942. Over 1,500 conversions were made, including a handful by the Australian firm Electrolux using Lithgow SMLE Mk III* rifles. The two Charlton designs differed markedly in external appearance (amongst other things, the New Zealand Charlton had a forward pistol grip and bipod, whilst the Australian one did not), but shared the same operating mechanism. Most of the Charlton Automatic Rifles were destroyed in a fire after WWII, but a few surviving examples are viewable at the Army Museum in Waiouru, the Auckland War Memorial Museum (both in New Zealand), as well as at the Infantry Museum in Singleton, NSW (Australia) and the Imperial War Museum in London (UK).
During WWII, the Commando units of the British military requested a silenced rifle for eliminating sentries, guard dogs, and other clandestine operational uses. The resulting weapon, designed by W.G. De Lisle, was effectively an SMLE Mk III* receiver redesigned to take a .45 ACP cartridge and associated magazine, with the barrel shortened and replaced with an integral silencer.
During the 1960s, the British Government and the Ministry of Defence converted a number of Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifles to 7.62x51mm NATO as part of a program to retain the Lee-Enfield as a rear-echelon weapon and as an emergency issue rifle for British military and civil defence forces if the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact invaded Western Europe and the British military were short of L1A1 SLRs to arm its troops at home and abroad.
The Lee-Enfield No. 4 series rifles that were converted to 7.62 mm NATO were re-designated as the L8 series rifles with the rifles being refitted with 7.62 mm NATO barrels, new bolt faces and extractor claws, new rear sights and new 10-round 7.62 mm NATO magazines that were produced by RSAF Enfield and Sterling Armaments to replace the old 10-round .303 British magazines.
The outward appearance of the L8 series rifles were no different to the original No. 4 rifles, except for the new barrel and magazine.
The results of the trials that were conducted on the L8 series rifles were mixed, and the British Government and the Ministry of Defence decided not to convert their existing stocks of Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifles to 7.62 mm NATO. Despite this, the British learned from the results of the L8 test program and used them in successfully converting their stocks of No. 4 (T) sniper rifles to 7.62 mm NATO and hence the creation of the L42A1 series sniper rifles.
At some point just after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Ishapore Rifle Factory in India began producing a new type of rifle known as the Rifle 7.62 mm 2A, which was based on the SMLE Mk III* and was reworked to use the 7.62 mm NATO round. Externally the rifle is very similar to the classic Mk III*, with the exception of the magazine, which is more "square" and usually carries twelve rounds instead of ten, although a number of 2A1s have been noted with 10-round magazines.
Ishapore 2A/2A1 rifles are made with improved steel (to handle the increased pressures of the 7.62 mm NATO round), and the extractor is redesigned to cope with the rimless round. From 1965-1975 (when production is believed to have been discontinued), the sights were changed from 2000 m to 800 m, and the rifle re-designated Rifle 7.62 mm 2A1.
There are no other differences between the Ishapore 2A and 2A1 rifles, but they are often incorrectly described as ".308 conversions". The 2A/2A1 rifles are not conversions of .303 calibre SMLE Mk III* rifles —they are newly manufactured, and are not technically chambered for commercial .308 Winchester ammunition. However, many 2A/2A1 owners shoot such ammunition in their rifles with no problems, although it must be stressed .308 Winchester may generate higher pressures than 7.62 mm NATO, even though the rounds are otherwise interchangeable.
The Ishapore 2A1 has the distinction of being the last non-sniper military bolt action rifle ever designed and issued to an armed force, and they are becoming increasingly popular with civilian shooters and collectors in the US, UK, and Australia as the supplies of affordable .303 British ammunition fluctuate.
Post-WWII SAF Lithgow converted some SMLE IIIs and III*s to commercial sporting rifles with Lithgow Slazenger branding. These included the centrefire .22 Hornet and the .410 British shotgun.
From the late 1940s, legislation in New South Wales, Australia, outlawed .303 British calibre rifles, so large numbers of SMLEs were converted to "wildcat" calibres such as .303/25, .303/22, .303/270 and the popular 7.7x54 round. .303/25 calibre sporterised SMLEs are very common in Australia today, although getting ammunition for them is very difficult. The restrictions placed on the .303 British calibre and rifles chambered for .303 British in New South Wales were lifted in the 1970s and many people who converted their Lee-Enfields to the "wildcat" rounds converted their rifles back to .303 British.
Numerous attempts were made to convert the .410 Shotgun model (which was single shot, and generally manufactured by the Ishapore arsenal) to a bolt-action repeating model by removing the wooden magazine plug and replacing it with a standard 10-round SMLE magazine. None of these is known to have been successful, however, a compromise was reached by fitting a Stevens/Savage .410 magazine into an original SMLE magazine housing.
The .410 conversions were mostly used for crowd control as riot shotguns in India. They are chambered for a 2" British .410 shotshell, basically a blown out .303 British cartridge. As these cartridges have not been manufactured for several years, ammunition is strictly a "roll your own" prospect. Many of these conversions have been reamed out to accept modern 2 1/2"-3" .410 shotshells in the United States. As the pressure for even high velocity .410 ammunition are well below standard .303 British pressure ranges these conversions, when done by a competent gunsmith, are quite safe to shoot.
SMLEs were also made as or converted to .22 rimfire for training purposes, designated "Rifle No 2 Mk IV"- not to be confused with the service-issue Rifle No 4 Mk 2.
Ishapore-made .303 calibre SMLE Mk III* rifles have appeared with 1980s manufacture dates suggesting that it may still be manufactured in the Indian sub-continent. Attempts to contact the Ishapore Rifle Factory to confirm this have been unsuccessful. However, re-arsenaled rifles on the Indian sub-continent often have all old markings scrubbed off, and a new marking added, so there is some debate as to whether 1980s-dated SMLEs are actually newly-made, or simply re-arsenaled.
|Enfield||Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield||United Kingdom|
|Sparkbrook||Royal Small Arms Factory Sparkbrook||United Kingdom|
|BSA Co||Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd||United Kingdom|
|LSA Co||London Small Arms Co. Ltd||United Kingdom|
|Lithgow||Lithgow Small Arms Factory||Australia|
|GRI||Ishapore Rifle Factory||British India|
|RFI||Ishapore Rifle Factory||India (Post-Partition)|
Note 1: "SSA" and "NRF" markings are sometimes encountered on WWI-dated SMLE Mk III* rifles. These stand for "Standard Small Arms" and "National Rifle Factory", respectively. Rifles so marked were assembled using parts from various other manufacturers, as part of a scheme during WWI to boost rifle production in the UK. Only SMLE Mk III* rifles are known to have been assembled under this program.
For the No. 4 Mk I, No. 4 Mk I* and No. 4 Mk 2 rifles:
|ROF (F)||Royal Ordnance Factory Fazakerley||United Kingdom|
|ROF (M)||Royal Ordnance Factory Maltby||United Kingdom|
|B||Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd||United Kingdom|
|M47C||Birmingham Small Arms Factory (Shirley)||United Kingdom|
|US PROPERTY [S]||Savage Arms||U.S.|
|POF||Pakistan Ordnance Factories||Pakistan|
Note 1 : World War II UK production rifles had manufacturer codes for security reasons. For example, BSA Shirley is denoted by M47C, ROF(M) is often simply stamped "M", and BSA is simply stamped "B".
Note 2: Savage-made Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk I* rifles are all stamped "US PROPERTY". They were supplied to the UK under the Lend-Lease programme during WWII.
Australian International Arms No. 4 Mk IV
The Brisbane-based Australian International Arms also manufacture a modern reproduction of the No. 4 Mk II rifle, which they market as the AIA No. 4 Mk IV. The rifles are manufactured by parts outsourcing and are assembled and finished in Australia, chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO and feed from standard M14 magazines. The No. 4 Mk IV is designed with the modern shooter in mind, and has the ability to mount a telescopic sight without drilling & tapping the receiver. Stocked with teak, the No. 4 Mk IV has been very positively received by shooters and hunters in Australia, despite retailing for approximately AUD$1000 - compared to about AUD$400 for a .303 calibre WWII vintage No. 4 Mk I or a 1960s 7.62x51mm NATO Ishapore 2A1. AIA also offers the AIA M10-A1 a Jungle Carbine-styled version chambered in 7.62x39mm Russian, which uses AK-47 magazines.
"Khyber Pass Copies", as they are known, tend to be copied exactly from a "master" rifle, which may itself be a Khyber Pass Copy, markings and all, which is why it's not uncommon to see Khyber Pass rifles with the "N" in "Enfield" reversed, amongst other things.
The quality on such rifles varies from "as good as a factory-produced example" to "dangerously unsafe", tending towards the latter end of the scale. The ammunition used in the region is often underloaded, being made from a variety of powders or even old film (which contains nitrocellulose, a key component of smokeless powder), and as such, Khyber Pass Copy rifles cannot generally stand up to the pressures generated by modern commercial ammunition. It is generally advised that Khyber Pass made firearms NOT be fired under any circumstances.
Although there are a few collectors out there who have made extremely mild handloaded cartridges for their Khyber Pass rifles, this practice is not recommended, as there is a high element of risk involved.
Khyber Pass Copies can be recognised by a number of factors, notably:
Lee-Enfield rifles are used by reserve forces and police forces in many Commonwealth countries, particularly Canada, where they are the main rifle issued to the Canadian Rangers, and India, where the Lee-Enfield is widely issued to reserve military units and police forces. Indian police officers carrying SMLE Mk III* and Ishapore 2A1 rifles were a familiar sight throughout railway stations in India after the Bombay train bombings of 2006. They are also still seen in the hands of Pakistani and Bangladeshi second-line and police units. Many Afghan participants in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were armed with Lee-Enfields, the rifle being common in the Middle East and South Asia, and are today manufactured in the Khyber Pass region, as bolt-action rifles remain effective weapons in desert and mountain environments, where long-range accuracy is more important than rate of fire.
Photos from the recent civil war in Nepal showed that the government troops were being issued SMLE Mk III/III* rifles to fight the Maoist rebels. The SMLEs observed are not in especially good condition, but it should also be noted that the Maoists were also armed with SMLEs (and anything else they can acquire), but as to whether the SMLEs in question are of British or Indian manufacture is unknown, as is the year of manufacture. Lee-Enfield rifles were also used by numerous warring factions in the Solomon Islands during the early 2000s, with news footage showing one faction's fighters using Lee-Enfield No.4 rifles that they had taken from government armouries.
The Lee-Enfield family of rifles is the oldest bolt-action rifle design still in official service, after the contemporary Mosin-Nagant M91/30 was officially retired by the last of the former Communist Bloc in 1998—a testament to both the durability of the original Lee-Enfield design and the influence of the British Empire.
The Rifle No. 8 variant (.22 chambered with no magazine) is in regular use with UK cadet forces as a light target rifle. The L98A1 Cadet GP Rifle replaced the No 4 for tactical exercises and full bore shooting. Deactivated No. 4 rifles are also used to practise weapon handling drills in UK Cadet Forces.
More recently, the Lee-Enfield rifle is mainly shot by historic rifle enthusiasts and those who find the 10-round magazine, loading by stripper clips, and the rapid bolt-action useful for Practical Rifle events. Since formation in 1998, the organisations such as the Lee Enfield Rifle Association have greatly assisted in not just preserving rifles in shooting condition (many Lee-Enfields are being deactivated and sold as "wall-hangers" to collectors who do not hold a Firearms License), but holding events and competitions wholly accurate in terms of the various courses of fire and targets of the period. Lee-Enfields are also popular with competitors in service rifle competitions in many British Commonwealth countries—notably Australia, which boasts a very active Military Service Rifle shooting community. For these competitions rifles are sometimes converted to 7.62x39 and 5.56 mm NATO (.223 Remington), although this practice is frowned upon as it effectively removes the historic value of the altered rifle. The extensive use of the Lee-Enfield rifle for service rifle shooting competitions in nations like Great Britain and Australia are also due to other factors like the gun laws of both Great Britain and Australia which strictly regulate and limit the private ownership of ex-military and military-style semi-automatic centrefire rifles. (For more information see Gun politics in the United Kingdom and Gun politics in Australia.)
Many people still hunt with as-issued Lee-Enfield rifles, with commercial .303 British ammunition proving especially effective on medium-sized game. Soft-point .303 ammunition is widely available for hunting purposes, though the Mark 7 military cartridge design often proves adequate because its tail-heavy design makes the bullet yaw violently and deform after hitting the target. The 10-round magazine and fast bolt-action are especially desirable in areas where multiple opportunities to make a humane shot may present themselves, or there is a likelihood of encountering more than one animal at a time.
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